Scientific lessons to improve your learning & memory
learn actionable and science backed techniques that help you become a better learner and enhance your memory
We spend roughly 13,000 hours in school until the end of high school. Then a lot of us go on to do more schooling at the post secondary level. That’s a lot of hours spent in the classroom learning. Now, let us ask you something. Looking back, how many of those hours did you spend learning how to learn? Did you have any courses teaching you how you should learn/use your memory effectively? Probably not and if you did, it probably wasn’t much time at all.
In this module we’re going to help you take a step back and teach you some of the ways you should be learning. These tactics will offer you structured and easy-to-follow steps of well established research in the field of learning. With as little at 10 minutes a day you can become a more effective and efficient learner from here on out. This will not only improve your ability to take in large amounts of information effectively, but it will also help you become a more effective team member, founder or entrepreneur.
Next we will break down some of the popular explanations in science behind how we learn and what is going on in your brain while it is happening. Understanding these basic biological fundamentals is an important step to changing behaviour.
What does learning actually mean?
When we talk about effective learning, what do we really mean? We can think of learning as:
Our ability to acquire new, or modify and reinforce existing knowledge, skills, values or behaviors which may also require us to integrate different types of information.
We learn from the things that we experience. For example, we learn to either perform or avoid certain actions due to their consequences. Therefore, learning is an adaptive function whereby our brain will change in relation to the way we interact with things in our environment.
There are two main types of learning – observational and associative learning.
Associative learning is learning by establishing a connection between events. Classic examples of associative learning include work on conditioning. Both classical and operant conditioning are main players in this form of learning.
Classical conditioning is where we teach associations between two different stimuli. You may have heard of Pavlov’s dog? During the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov (a Russian physiologist) began investigating the salvation response in dogs. He noticed that his own dogs would begin to salivate whenever he entered the room, even when he wasn’t bringing them food. Essentially, the dog’s learned to associate Pavlov entering the room as a signal that they would be getting fed (hence the salvation response). This discovery became one of the first systematic studies of learning and conditioning.
Operant conditioning is another form of associative learning. This type of conditioning is a method in which we teach associations between behaviors and consequences. Operant conditioning uses reward and punishment to strengthen or weaken certain behaviors. This term was coined in the late 1930s by a scientist known commonly as B.F. Skinner. Basically, Skinner found that you can make behaviors more or less likely to occur based on the type of response you give them. More specifically, behaviour that is reinforced tends to be repeated and behavior that is not-reinforced or associated with a punishment tend to become extinguished.
Observational learning on the other hand is learning by watching others engage in different behaviours. This type of learning is also known as ‘vicarious learning’ because this type of learning generally involves watching someone as they learn through means of operant or classical conditioning. Albert Bandura is the psychologist best known for his research on observational learning. He did some classic psychology experiments where he found that children who watched adults behaving aggressively were more likely to behave aggressively themselves.
Now that we have an idea about what learning means and the different types of learning we’re talking about through research, let’s dive into how we learn.
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Learning & the brain
When the brain learns, it acquires information from our various senses, compares it to previously learned information and stores that information in short-term and eventually long-term memory. Learning requires the brain to change in some way, creating stronger connections by strengthening synapses (point at which brain cells – neurons – communicate with each other), activating and/or pruning neural pathways.
This process occurs in our nervous system in response to environmental stimuli. Once we experience something, researchers think we store this information in one of three ways: sensory storage, short-term storage and long-term storage. There’s no reason for our brains to store everything we encounter so this system acts as a filter for us.
Generally information is first perceived by the brain in a fraction of a second. Your sensory memory system allows the perception of sounds, visual stimuli, or a touch to linger after the presentation of that stimuli is over. This process requires attention which is regulated by the frontal lobe and the thalamus. Events that direct more attention will cause neurons to fire more frequently, making that experience more likely to be encoded in memory.
These perceived events are then decoded within the sensory areas of the cortex and then brought to an area called the hippocampus as a single experience. The hippocampus (located in the medial temporal lobe) is the area of the brain responsible for memory. In particular, at this stage the brain will decide whether the experience will be stored in long-term memory. This will be done by comparing new events/experiences with previously recorded ones. Although the exact mechanism is not fully understood, encoding occurs on different levels going from sensory memory (ultra-short term) to short-term memory and then to long-term memory through a process called consolidation.
Human learning and memory is associative, meaning that new information is remembered better if it can be associated with information previously anchored in memory.
Within this document you’ll find many ways in which you can take advantage of this process. We will give you a new take on how to learn new information and keep it in memory for the long-term.
Debunking the myths of learning
We believe for self-growth, knowing what NOT to do is just as important. To that aim, we carefully sift through hundreds of research papers, assessing their credibility based on factors of scientific/methodological rigor and statistical accuracy. Certain lines of research get flagged, which we then share with you.
Here are the top 3 myths of learning and memory that we think you should know about:
Figuring out your learning style will help you learn more effectively
We’ve probably heard this one at one point or another: “I’m a visual learner” or “I learn better by listening to audio or through the sound of music”. Chances are, you’ve been asked what type of learner you are at some point in your life. You may even think the concept of learning styles is perfectly valid. The truth is, learning styles isn’t a thing. We actually all tend to learn in fundamentally similar ways and the idea that some of us learn better through visual, spatial or auditory cues is just another myth in the land of neuroscience.
How did this neuromyth come to be? Well, as Paul Howard-Jones (professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University) writes, it comes through a “misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”. 4
The evidence against learning styles is compelling. In one study, researchers investigated the 13 most populars models of learning styles and found no evidence supporting the notion that we should cater teaching techniques toward these different styles. 5 Additionally, another study found that even though the concept of learning styles has been around for quite a while, there isn’t any rigorous evidence that the concept rings true. More specifically, very few studies have even used any scientific methodology capable of testing whether applying learning styles to education actually works. Additionally, those that did use an appropriate method for measurement actually found several results that contradicted the hypothesis. 6, 7
Using brain training games as an effective way to improve learning and memory
Imagine if you could improve your learning, memory, attention and problem solving skills by simply playing brain training games. Games that would help prevent cognitive decline such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and those that could help you get through work, school and life – remembering the name of someone you just met or where you left your phone.
This is what brain games claim to do. For those of you who aren’t familiar with brain games, they are online brain training programs (e.g. Luminosity) consisting of games and claiming to improve problem solving, memory and attention. However, numerous studies 1, 2, 3 have shown that these training programs have no discernible effect on the brain, day-to-day cognitive functioning or anything else for that matter. All these games actually help you with is getting better at those specific games you’re playing.
You see, one of the important queries about brain-training programs is whether improving skills needed to master a particular game has any effects on other skills such as memory, attention, decision making, etc (this is what brain games claim to do). This is a principle in psychology called “transfer”.
Recent research has set out to find transfer by using brain games and, spoiler alert, they didn’t find any. The study wanted to see if these games could improve cognitive control and help people make better choices about risky behavior (keep in mind that these are all things that games such as Luminosity says it can improve). These scientists reasoned that if playing these brain-games can change the brain by increasing the activity in executive function areas, people would also show better decision making. They used a large sample of 128 people in a randomized controlled trial experiment where people were randomly assigned to train with brain games for ten weeks or train by playing a video game aimed at improving thinking and memory. They looked for basic improvements in cognitive performance and used neuroimaging to look for activity in relevant brain areas before and after training. The results were that there was no effect on brain activity, no effect on cognitive performance and no effect on decision-making. 1
Still not convinced? In 2016, the company who created Lumosity was fined $2 million for false advertising to their customers. Turns out, improving cognitive functioning which can apply to your day-to-day life is going to take more than playing brain games.
Speed reading is effective for quick learning and memory retention
Speed reading has become a popular strategy for making quick progress on emails, reports and other forms of text that we come across daily, however, the science behind such strategy claims that it may be too good to be true. In particular, one comprehensive review looked at decades worth of literature on the science of reading and found little evidence to support speed reading as a method to quick understanding of written material. 8, 9
What is the idea behind speed reading? Generally, speed reading program claim that they can increase reading speed by limiting functions of the visual system. For example, they often will present text one word at a time in rapid succession. Proponents of speed-reading claims that this style of presentation elminiates you need to make saccades (eye-movements) which then speed up the pace of reading. However, research on reading suggests that we utilize these eye movements to move back to material that has not been fully understood and eliminating them generally impairs the accuracy of comprehension. 9 Not to mention, eye movements only account for no more than 10% of the overall time we spend reading. 8
There are no magic shortcuts for reading more quickly while still fully understanding what you’ve read. Reading is a complex mix between visual and mental processes. The only way to speed up the reading process is through practice. The greater exposure you have to a word, the more fluent that word becomes while reading, thus speed up the process. This only accounts for minute changes, however.
So, is there anything these speed reading programs are good for? Well, at best they can help you to become and efficient skimmer of material. In some cases you might want to move through material quickly while obtaining only a general understanding of the material and its content. This is what the research tells us these programs make us better at. If this is your goal, then it might be worth looking into but please don’t use this method as a means to learn large amounts of material faster.
- Kable, J. W., Caulfield, M. K., Falcone, M., McConnell, M., Bernardo, L., Parthasarathi, T., … Lerman, C. (2017).
No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Neural Activity During Decision-Making.
The Journal of Neuroscience.
- Owen, A. M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., … Ballard, C. G. (2010).
Putting brain training to the test.
Nature, 465, 775.
- Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016).
Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work?
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186.
- Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014).
Neuroscience and education: myths and messages.
Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817.
- Coffield, F, Moseley, D, Hall, E & Ecclestone, K. (2004)
Should we be using learning styles?: what research has to say to practice
LSRC reference, Learning & Skills Research Centre, London.
- Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008).
Learning styles: Concepts and evidence.
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.
- Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2014).
Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 64–78.
- Rayner, K., Schotter, E. R., Masson, M. E. J., Potter, M. C. & Treiman, R. (2016).
So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(1), 4–34.
- Carver, R. (1992).
Reading Rate: Theory, Research, and Practical Implications.
Journal of Reading, 36(2), 84-95.